May 2011, On the Beach: David Horvitz
Borderfield State Park; photo: David Horvitz
Horvitz's photo of Borderfield after being edited by Wikipedia moderators
On the Beach: David Horvitz
For a brief moment this Winter, a lone figure stood on the beach in photos illustrating fifty Wikipedia articles about the California coastline. His pose in each image is more or less the same: A man faces the sea. Sometimes he sits. Sometimes he stands. On Pismo Beach and Bodega Head he is captured in the center of the frame, hands in pockets, gazing towards the horizon, while in others the man is little more than a speck, dwarfed by the grandeur of the California coast. These are the kinds of images that are guaranteed a second life full of invented narratives when found in flea-markets or, as is often the case with David Horvitz’s work, drifting about on the internet.
David Horvitz’s images are meant to be found, meant to be manipulated and meant to call attention to their own circulation. When the artist embarked on a road trip from Baja to the Oregon border with a rotating carload of friends, he was less interested in documenting a road trip than in creating a cloud of visual information about place that could then be released into the internet. “One of the intentions of the project was to put these images into a pool of accessible information,” David tells me over Skype from a surfer village in Holland, “I’m basically the opposite of an artist who uses found images. Instead I make images to be found.”
David’s artwork has been described possessing “nomadic personality,” an apt moniker considering how his work moves. In some projects this movement relates to travel or the idea of travel, like in a number of work from the 2008 series If, in which an internet audience can fund trips to places like the Okinawan Island of Taketomi and Perth, Australia, the farthest point from the artist’s home in New York City. If you send him to Taketomi, David will send you sand, if Perth, photos. Other works investigate how images, objects and ideas can infiltrate physical and virtual space. For his project Drug Store Beetle, he organized original works by 27 different artists into 30 flap-bound editions. The works were donated to thirty different libraries around the globe, the idea being that each volume, like a bookworm, was a sort of invasive species.
David’s work with Wikipedia and other peer-to-peer platforms has taken on many forms, but his dalliance with inserting images in Wikipedia articles has remained an ongoing interest. He regularly uploads photos to illustrate articles on subjects, people or places that have affected him in some way. A sort of homage via insertion, David’s adds his own likeness to these entries, a persistent yet subtle reminder of our subjective relationship to information and how information is animated by the networks that inform it. A hand reaches out to touch the gravestone of a German-Jewish political theorist. A partially obscured figure stands at the Berlin memorial site for the murder of a Polish, Marxist theorist and activist.
With the photograph he took at Bodega Head, Horvitz extended this inquiry to place. “Bodega Head was the first time I had done a Wikipedia insertion about a geographical location instead of a person or a thing. In the process of my practice, the next step was to do all of California. This gets biographical in a sense because I am from there.” When I point out that his California project reminds me of Richard Long’s walks, David counters, “There is also this history of conceptual artists making art about California,” and proceeds to describe John Baldessari’s 1969 work California Map Project, a project in which Baldessari traveled to the approximate geographic location of each letter on the California state map and took photographs of letters created or found in situ.
Undertaken for the recent exhibition at SF Camera Works, As Yet Untitled: Artists and Writers in Collaboration
, Horvitz’s photos and Ed Steck’s writing form the project Public Access, so named because California beaches are public property “from water line to dune vegetation.” Whether David Geffen’s Malibu home or a Scientologist compound, beach-goers can legally slip between the houses to sit on the sand. For his part of the collaboration, David photographed himself on the beach along the length of the entire California coastline, including its secluded Lost Coast, and posted them to each beach’s corresponding article on Wikipedia.
Judging from the responses of the Wikipedia editors, the houses David slipped between were digital. When viewed sequentially in the PDF made to accompany the exhibition, the photos form a time-lapse portrait of an act that, though technically legal, often carries a transgressive weight. Wiki-moderators responded to the sudden deluge of photographs with an intensity seldom seen outside of Hardy Boys novels. Exactly who was this mystery man and what was his intention? A great amount of time and energy was spent debating whether his incursion into an encyclopedia entry was ethical. Many determined that it was not, and altered the photos by cropping the figure out of the image. In not doing so, they open up a field of questions about the elisions between implicit and explicit social and organizational codes.
David’s interest in how information and images circulate and the myriad revisions and redactions they undergo has made Wikipedia a favorite haunt, which one commenter on the thread “Something Fishy in Pelican Beach” picked up on when he said: “there are probably more pictures of this guy on Wikipedia than anyone in the world.”
Debatable, but I like to think it’s true.
Jesi Khadivi is a curator and art critic based in Berlin. She regularly contributes writing about art, film, architecture and pop culture to Dazed and Confused and SOMA, among many other publications. She is also the director of Golden Parachutes, a contemporary art gallery in the Kreuzberg.
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